Every time I go home from Berkeley, my family visits a beautiful Buddhist meditation center located on mountaintop redwood forests in Watsonville, Calif.. There, my brother and I feed the birds and fish, while my parents chat with the nuns. Sometimes, I sit next to the giant stone Buddha that’s probably 20 times my size and meditate. The smell of incense lingers subtly in the crisp air. Though there is the occasional murmured prayer and bird chirp, the temple remains comfortably quiet and peaceful. Before we hit a few thrift stores on our way back home (ironic, given that material desire is the basis of suffering), my parents joke and tell me to pray for good grades and clarity in my endless search for my professional purpose in life. Usually, I empty my mind and think about nothing.
Only a few years ago, I was pugnacious when it came to matters concerning religion. I considered myself an atheist, firmly believing that religion rationalized warfare, hatred and narrow-mindedness in the world. It even sanctioned brutal, genteel colonialism countless times in world history — just look at the church in the colonial Philippines or the Spanish missionaries and the Native Americans in U.S. history. Look at the Westboro Baptist Church today. Not too long ago, I even made the dangerous association of religion with fanaticism. I would treat religion with condescending tolerance — you have your thing, I have mine, and that’s that. Problematically, I thought, why the hell couldn’t we all be liberal, secular humanists?
Something in me changed when I came home for my mother’s birthday during my first semester at UC Berkeley. Ever since I left for college, my parents started practicing Buddhism more consistently. When I came home to see them, I noticed their faces smoothed out with calmness and patience. My mother, prone to anxiousness like me, smiled more softly and even kissed me when I left to go back to college. Before he would go to sleep, my dad clutched onto a wooden bead bracelet and meditated. In long car rides, my parents put in a CD of a Buddhist monk delivering sermons, although I found the content more akin to life advice and storytelling. Overall, the environment back home became less tense and more loving.
I am not pitching for religion; my relationship with religion is more ambiguous than I would like it to be. I am neither an avid nor virtuous observer, but I like to think that something has changed for me since my family started practicing Buddhism more closely two years ago. I’ve learned something that I have barely touched in my world-class education: empathy. In the face of my frustration, anxiety and inability to articulate myself, I have hope and forgiveness. Desires plague me less often. And, finally, my ambiguous affiliation with religion has given me the strength to not only heal, but also yield to the idea that what rises must also fall.
For me, I’m not quite sure if I can separate the ambivalence of my faith from my political beliefs. I don’t think religion and politics have to be entirely separated. (On a side note, I think that appealing to secular Enlightenment thinking can be dangerously authoritative and dismissive.) But I’m not saying religion should be institutionalized, either. A few days ago, I sat in lecture learning about the eloquent Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition politician in the National League for Democracy. Primarily, we learned about her strong stances on democracy and Buddhism, as well as her teachings of the idea of metta, or loving-kindness, a popular form of meditation in Buddhism. Madeleine Bunting wrote an article in the Guardian about how Aung San Suu Kyi’s political thought challenges Western conceptions of freedom. Bunting contends, “For her, freedom is not only a set of institutions, laws and political processes, it is also a quest of the individual spirit, the struggle to free oneself from greed, fear and hatred and how they drive one’s own behaviour.”
The freedom of the spirit is inseparable from politics, considering that politics is about how the self situates itself amongst others. Democracy is very much about a society as it is about an individual. It requires empathy and community — ideas, perhaps, that politicians and political scientists don’t take much in consideration. For example, if we look carefully, much of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetoric was situated in the hopeful language of Christianity. He once asked, “What moral implications do we have growing out of the Bible?”
It might seem strange that I chose to write about religion in a column about language, but I think it’s difficult to deny the existence of anti-religious language, which is drenched in the ethos of Enlightenment thinking. We often hear terms like “fundamentalist” and “anti-intellectual” and “superstitious” used to characterize religious faith. Religion, it seems, is maudlin, restrictive and imposing. We learn it as something to be tolerated, not accepted. Society rarely lifts the veil of paranoid reading on religion, and it also seems that the conversations among different communities of varying degrees and kinds of faith never quite happen. So why try to attain an objective understanding of the world? Why not critically engage with different religions to see what they can teach us about ourselves, the world around us and different understandings of compassion and human dignity?
Before leaving home for my sophomore year of college, I bought a jade necklace at the temple in Watsonville. Usually, the black necklace sits on my desk untouched, the pendant cool to the touch and scratched at the surface. When I do look at it, feelings of ambiguity about my faith emerge. I can’t tell if the whitish-green jade figure is Guanyin, the female bodhisattva of compassion, or the Buddha. But feelings of hope and clarity come up as well, as I revel in a fleeting moment of enlightenment.